Book review: Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is a thriller narrated by a foetus

The exuberance of the prose points to a knowing twinkle in Ian McEwan’s eye; gone is the earnestness we’ve come to associate with his more recent work.

Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape 

Nutshell Ian McEwan Jonathan Cape Dh40

Consider this: a novel narrated by a foetus who finds himself the (aural) witness to a murder plot as his mother and her lover plan to poison the father of her unborn child. As premises go, it sounds like it’s heading straight for the slush pile accompanied by condescending sniggers. But think again: it’s actually Ian McEwan’s latest work, Nutshell, and it’s the best thing he’s written in years.

Granted it’s a pretty preposterous conceit, not least because of the overtones of Hamlet – “My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then to avenge it.” This foetus’s loquaciousness is instantly recognisable, but just in case we need a few extra clues Gertrude becomes “Trudy”, her paramour (and husband’s brother) “Claude” to the original Claudius, and the motive for their crime the contemporary Londoner’s equivalent of a kingdom: a £7 million townhouse in leafy St John’s Wood – an Englishman’s home is his castle and all that. In principle it shouldn’t work, but somehow McEwan manages to pull it off. A feat all the more impressive since the satisfaction of an enticing idea followed through to fruition has been sorely missing from so much of his back catalogue – don’t get me started on the disappointment that was Atonement (2001).

Humour is the name of the game here. Surely that’s the only way to read a foetus soliloquising about the delights of a good burgundy or Sancerre “decanted through a healthy placenta”, ranting and railing about “trigger warnings”, or describing in gut-wrenching detail his uncomfortable front row seat during the actual adultery: “I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls. This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing.” Some will cite middle-class privileged pomposity, but the exuberance of the prose points to a knowing twinkle in McEwan’s eye; gone is the earnestness we’ve come to associate with his more recent work.

As is often the case with the cleverest of ideas, it’s really rather simple. The promise of the murder, coupled with the question of whether the foetus will prove more proactive than his princely predecessor, is more than enough to propel the plot.

Sure, buying into this particular narrator requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but McEwan makes enough of an effort to address the inevitable questions pedantic readers will ask: the mother-to-be listens to “podcast lectures, and self-improving audio books”, the information from which fuels her offspring’s enquiring mind, and “immersed in abstractions” it’s “the proliferating relations between them [that] create the illusion of a known world”.

Perhaps you’ve got to read it to believe it? That’s certainly what I urge.

I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London.

Published: September 8, 2016 04:00 AM


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